20 June 2009

* Lebanon Summer Heats Up With Star-Studded Festivals

Lebanon is due to kick off star-studded summer festivals with the likes of legendary British bands Deep Purple and Jethro Tull set to rock the country as it seeks to break with past turmoil. The first festival opens on Saturday night with an open-air concert by Canadian music icon Loreena McKennitt, who will sing against a backdrop of Phoenician ruins in the ancient port of Byblos north of Beirut. Tull is scheduled to perform in Byblos on July 19.

Summer music and dance festivals usually attract thousands of visitors and are a boon for Lebanon's trademark tourist industry but in past years they often had to be cancelled because of wars and political crises. Lebanon hosts three prestigious festivals which overlap from June to the end of August. "These festivals are a tradition -- Baalbek is still there, against all odds," said Leila Bsat of the Baalbek International Festival, which was halted during the 1975-1990 civil war. The Baalbek International Festival, which was officially launched in 1956 and is the oldest in the Middle East, runs from July 4 to August 13 and is held in the shadows of spectacular Roman temples. The Bejart Ballet of Lausanne will kick off the festival with a tribute to the late choreographer Maurice Bejart, while Deep Purple will play Baalbek on July 25. Vacationers in Lebanon make up a large number of concert-goers and officials foresee a boom in tourism after a year of relative calm that culminated in a general election on June 7. "There is a big difference this year and there are a lot of tourists coming in, first and foremost expatriates," Bsat told AFP. Lebanon is also a popular destination for Arabs from oil-rich Gulf countries in summer. "Last year, the May events hampered the summer season and the festivals, so some bands didn't want to come to Beirut," Bsat said. Tourism in Lebanon had taken a beating in recent years after a string of political assassinations following a Beirut bomb blast that killed ex-premier Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. In 2006, many festivals were called off due to the devastating July-August war between Israel and Hezbollah and again in 2007 over the protracted political crisis and a deadly standoff between the army and Islamist militiamen in a Palestinian refugee camp. Sectarian violence in May 2008 left more than 100 people dead and brought the country close to another civil war before tempers cooled and foreign mediation brought about a degree of stability. But the shows have reclaimed their original popularity this year, organisers say.

Demand is especially high for performers like French crooner Charles Aznavour, whose Armenian roots strike a chord with Lebanon's large Armenian community, and Gabriel Yared, the Oscar-winning composer of Lebanese origin. "Aznavour is fully booked," said Wafa Saab of the Beiteddine Festival's executive committee. "And it's a premier for Yared in Lebanon, where he is going to play the piano." The Beiteddine Festival, from July 2 to August 15, is held in a palatial 19th century residence in the Shouf mountains, an area of green hills and traditional villages southeast of Beirut which is popular with tourists. "It's even better than last year," Saab told AFP. "In fact, it may well be the best season since 2003." Tourism made a dramatic recovery in 2008 with the arrival of 1.3 million visitors to the Mediterranean country and officials hope Lebanon will woo two million tourists by the end of 2009. Arab artists who will perform at the festivals include Iraqi crooner Kazem Saher, the Lebanese dance troupe Caracalla and the Palestine Youth Orchestra. There will also be tributes to the late Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum and to the late Lebanese composer Mansur Rahbani, who left his stamp on scores of enduring songs and musicals.


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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.